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David Hyde Pierce - The US Interview (con't)

Saratoga Springs seems to be one of those compact, old-timey visions of how sweet life in this country can be. Was it really that way?"

Saratoga was, as long ago as the Victorian era - and in some ways still is - a big summer community for wealthy people. Especially people in horse racing, but also for the springs and health spa. The flip side is it's basically a small town, with all the advantages of growing up in a small town but a lot more culture because of all the influx from New York City. We had the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York City Ballet each summer.

Not to mention Seattle Slew...

We lived real close to the track. August was horse-racing time. The only time we'd ever go to the track is sometimes in the morning, when the horses would be working out. We'd walk. It was just a couple of blocks, and the fog would be on the track, and the trainers would be racing the horses around. We would have breakfast then - without losing any money.

Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?

I was going to be a concert pianist, and when I was in high school, my parents were scared to death that I would focus too much on that too soon. And that I'd end up in some sort of dead end, and not fulfilling whatever potential they thought I had. So when I finally called them somewhere in the middle of college and said, "Well, you don't have to worry anymore - I'm not going to be a concert pianist," they were relieved. Then I said, "I think I'm going to be an actor." And then they thought "concert pianist" just sounded a whole lot better than they used to.

But they were ultimately supportive?

Very supportive. There are a couple of reasons why. One is that they came to see the first professional show, Beyond Therapy, I ever did. They were there for opening night on Broadway, with starts like John Lithgow and Dianne Wiest onstage, as well as stars in the audience - and they were sold. That was it. They just had to see that and they got the whole picture.

And the second reason they bought in?

The other part of it was that my dad had been an actor. He actually passed away just a few months ago, and in going through the house and archives and things I found out that not only had my dad been an actor, but his dad had been an actor, and my great-grandfather had been an actor. And who knows before then? My dad had actually wanted to be a professional actor, but when he got out of college, it was the Depression, and he thought it was too risky to go to New York at that point. So he stayed and worked in his dad's insurance business and met my mom there; they fell in love, and that was it - suddenly he had someone he had to support, and he thought acting was too risky. So, on some level, I was fulfilling dreams that he had had.

You had quite a prestigious start. But that doesn't guarantee you much, does it?

No. I started working more in off-Broadway and regional theatre after that, but no, nothing ever guarantees you anything - that's my rule. My other rule is never believe anything that anyone tells you, and then you'll never be fooled. It's not as cynical as it sounds; it's just that people always say something for a reason - maybe a nice reason, maybe a devious reason - so on that level, you can't take things at face value.

Did you ever get to see your father perform?

He had stopped before I came along. Although, when I went back to Saratoga to do a benefit - a Gilbert and Sullivan show - for a local arts group. And one of his friends had come, and said to be afterward, "When I watch you, I see him." So that gives me some idea of what he used to do. Obviously he was shameless.

It has been reported that Kelsey Grammer likes to keep things fresh by rehearsing as little as possible. What is that work experience like?

It started before Kelsey. I think it started with [Frasier co-creator] Jimmy Burrows in Cheers. He's almost pathologically opposed to rehearsal. He believes: Cast good people, get great writers, and put them together - and it just doesn't take that long. Certainly, when the show first started, I was shocked at how long it didn't take. And Jimmy once yelled at Jane Leeves [who plays Daphne] and me because he caught us rehearsing. You know, he was kidding, but he was also serious; and he's really tight, because you only have a week to do a show. I mean, there's only so deep you can dig in that week.

One gets the idea that this remains a tightknit group, with time for each other off the set.

We all went to Kelsey's wedding, and yeah, we go to parties. We also go to each other's house. A group of us got together over at Kelsey's and just read through some plays just for the fun of it. That may not be everyone's idea of a good time, but we had a good time.

At a certain stage, two seasons ago, Kelsey Grammer fell off the wagon. He kept things professional on the show, yet the cast helped in an intervention. Was that tough?

That is (a) private and (b) ancient history. That's something that happened a couple of years ago, and it's not something we need to talk about or anything.

Is John Mahoney as droll as is he is serious?

He's wickedly funny. He's like an 8-year-old child. He's always doing pranks, and we have a great time.

Will we ever see Maris, your wife on the show, in the flesh? And who could play this terrifying specter?

I don't know who they would bring in. I think the mother alien from the second Aliens movie would do the role. He could do it in a pillbox hat.

It wasn't enough to battle Home Improvement. Now the network wants you to take up the Seinfeld time slot's ratings legacy. Are you feeling pressure?

We can't control what the ratings will be. All we can do is do what we've been doing for five years. It's like, if you're going to go skiing, do you hope you'll have a good day of skiing? Yes. Do you hope you won't break your leg? Yes.

Do you still find time to read?

I just started a book called The Deptford Trilogy, by [prize-winning Canadian novelist] Robertson Davies. I'm also reading - this all sounds highly falutin - a biography of William Blake.

After six seasons as Niles, you haven't adopted his personality. But you did just narrate a PBS documentary about fine wine, one of Niles' favorite topics.

They may have called me because they thought I knew about wine. I knew nothing. But then they sent me some good wine, and... Maybe it's because I'm getting older, I'm finding enjoyment in things that stop time. Just the simple act of tasting a glass of wine is its own event. You're not downing a glass of wine in the midst of doing something else.

Are you pursuing any recreations that would be unlikely for the Niles we've come to know?

I've been kick-boxing for exercise. And now if I turn on boxing on the television by accident, I watch it, and I love it. Whereas a year ago, I thought it was the stupidest thing I had even seen - that you would voluntarily watch these people beat the crap out of each other and think, oh, that's entertainment. But having in some ways studied it, now I know what they're doing. I think opera is probably the exact same thing as boxing - a bunch of big, strangely dressed people making strange noises for a really long time.

By Fred Schruers


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